Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cockroach Compassion: The Ultimate Practice

My Teacher arrived uninvited
this morning, alive and kicking—
and he left that way, too.
One of the most basic principles in Buddhist practice is embracing mindfulness in all aspects of life. Every morning, I start the day by reminding myself to be mindful in my thoughts, words, intentions and deeds. I burn a little piece of incense at the cute shrine I've installed in my apartment, and I make four prostrations. (And yes, it's probably a good thing that I am now living alone and there's no one—not even a cat—to give me shit about this morning ritual.) Today, however, I found myself not so alone as I performed my prostrations and prayers before the shrine. On the floor, not three feet from me was the very nemesis of my existence, a cockroach. I can tolerate spiders, wasps and any assortment of other creepy-crawlers, but for some reason cockroaches inspire a visceral aversion in me. And it's unfortunate that I live in the South where these dreaded creatures reside in abundance, not only crawling, but winged, too. Yes, most perversely these roaches (sometimes genteelly called Palmetto bugs) can fly. For these and many reasons, cockroaches gross me out, send me running for the Raid, or for a shoe to smash them into oblivion. But not today.
   You see Buddhist vows prescribe Thou Shalt Not Kill, although the Buddhist language is not quite so OT. Simply, one should live life in harmony with all creatures, not putting oneself above any living being and certainly not bringing about its death. The roach was lying on his back with his sticky feet flailing in the air, quite helpless. I kept an eye on him as I finished my prayers, asking for guidance in thought, word, intention and deed, while the roach kicked his little hairy legs in the air. Then I slowly rose, retrieved a brown paper grocery bag and a dust pan from the kitchen and returned to the living room where the roach was still splayed like a June Bug. I took a deep breath—you never know what a cockroach playing 'possum will do once nudged, one of their many trickeries and why they give me the heebie-geebies—and scooped him onto the dust pan and into the open bag. An aversive shiver went through me as I hurriedly crumpled the top of the bag to close off his exist, then I carried said bag out my front door and down the stairs to take my uninvited, yet honored, guest out of doors. I released him with an ungentle shake into the shrubbery far away from the entrance to my apartment. Once released, he began to crawl quite aggressively straight toward me, his "I'm dying act" now forgotten. I ran back into my building, discarding the paper bag in the lobby recycling bin before racing back upstairs into my apartment, locking the door behind me.
  I knew this day would come: the day I would have to make a conscious effort to show compassion to a cockroach, the nemesis of my nightmares. This is the reason Buddhism prescribes mindfulness and the honoring of life. The very act of stopping a reaction of aversion, gathering strength (and a dust pan and paper bag), carefully removing the loathsome creature and releasing him unharmed is the essence of all Buddhist practice. Now in a weird way, I'm grateful to the cockroach for giving me the opportunity to practice compassion. And practice is key in mastering any activity, right? Were he and his brethren hoards not on this earth, I would not be tested. Perhaps I have found the cockroach's purpose in the world is not to spread pestilence and fear, but to incite gentleness and compassion. Think about it next time before you call the exterminator or slam a shoe-heel down on this lowliest of creatures. The cockroach can be an excellent Dharma teacher, depending upon how you choose to perceive him.

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